The pedal-steel powerhouse blazes funky new trails on his latest set

By Bob Cannon

On Lickety Split, the latest album by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Robert Randolph takes the pedal steel guitar where no one has gone before. In his hands the instrument is no longer just the province of weepy country ballads—it contains multiple personalities, a musical Sybil that alternately evokes the ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and nonguitar greats like Miles and Coltrane.

Randolph emerged from the “sacred steel” tradition of his House of God congregation in Orange, N.J. “I grew up watching all these guys play in church,” he remembers. “At our church, as a steel player you were already sort of the rock star, because there is no church unless the steel player is there.

Since his explosive 2002 debut, Live at the Wetlands, Randolph has redrawn the template for pedal steel. Lickety Split continues his exploration into new musical waters, with contributions from Trombone Shorty and Carlos Santana. “When you work with Carlos in the studio, he’s one hell of a composer,” says Randolph. “He’s like, ‘You do this, and I’m going to play this line …’ And he’ll have listened to some old African piece of music, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t think about that! I would play something totally different.’”

Although Lickety Split is his first studio album in three years, Randolph says he was aiming for a live feel. “You put parts into place, everybody’s with you, and you keep up that energy,” he says. “Sometimes you have a chorus and bridge and a pre-chorus, and sometimes there’s no need for that!” Engineered by the legendary Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin), it’s a high-energy collection that leaves the listener exhausted by its vitality and by the band’s breathtaking way with a groove. And, of course, by Randolph’s mountain of licks mere mortals have never heard—or dreamed of—before. The steel virtuoso sat down to fill in details on his latest project.

The album’s exhausting in a good way.

Thank you, man! You know, I kind of want it to be exhausting. I don’t want anybody to be saying, “Hey, what happened to the energy of the band? Where’d everything go?” We wanted to add some songs that people could sing and dance to. The thing about our band is always having this high energy, kind of natural organic style. In the song “Brand New Wayo” that I recorded with Carlos Santana, it’s just straight chords with everybody in the studio and me and Carlos just having it.

Could you walk us through a quick history of sacred steel?

It’s been going on in our church for about 80 or 90 years. It’s all about this music that’s joyous, that’s got a groove. The steel plays these singing melodies that make you feel like you’re in heaven. And the other times it makes you feel like you’re at a rock concert. You’d come out of church after a four-hour service, and nearly three hours of it was all jamming. We also had these collections of tapes and CDs and recordings of old services. Every time we got in the car we’d just put that tape in and go, “Man, I remember this night, 1989!” So we got to know the history of it.

Is it difficult to reconcile sacred with secular rock content? 

Sometimes I want to write different lyrics, and I just don’t write them. That’s the only conflict for me, because the good angel above my head always says, “Whoa, you can’t say those kind of things! Just because you’re mad at somebody and you’re pissed off, you don’t want to say that on your record, do you?”

There’s a great line in “All-American” that goes “half civilized, half buck wild …”

That’s what’s in all of us! I’ve seen more lawyers, doctors, congressmen at our shows partying. But look, there’s nothing wrong with it. You are who you are, and when it’s time to go to a concert and have fun, you can let it all out, because music is in all of us, and people want to let loose.

Greatest pop influences?

Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown. I loved Zeppelin, but the guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan got me, because he was such a soulful player. We were always taught at church to play soulful, and to always have a connection, not to just play because you want to feel good and show off.

Do you listen to instruments other than guitar for inspiration?

Oh yeah, there are times when I don’t listen to any guitar. It’s really rare, other than Stevie Ray Vaughan. I get all of my voicings from singers, like Frank Sinatra, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder, or musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Sometimes I’ve got to get into where I want the steel to sound like this voice. That’s just the natural sound of how we were taught to play the pedal steel in church. We had to sound like a singer—and that’s why I listen to the great singers. If you go to the extended version of “Isn’t She Lovely” where [Wonder] does that great harp solo at the end, and it just goes on and on, it’s just … wow! It’s like nobody else would even play those notes—where did that even come from? You could tell he was just feeling it. He just said, “No, let the track roll!” It happens a lot when I’m doing a solo—you just feel so good the producer keeps saying, “Roll tape!”

How did Santana get involved?

The Santana session goes back to when we were in Europe doing the Montreux Jazz Festival. We were backstage jamming with each other, and we started talking about all these ideas. We wound up booking a session in Vegas for two days. Everybody in the band was there, and we recorded about 10 different songs. As time goes on, we’ll release them all, maybe as B-sides, but “Brand New Wayo” and “Blacky Joe” are just the two we decided to put on the record. Everything I recorded with him was simply great.

Talk about your gear.

I have two pedal steels that I use. One is a Jackson pedal steel, and the other is a 12-string from the Mullen Guitar Company. The Jackson is a 13-string. Jacksons are actually the sons of the old Sho-Bud steels, but they’re sort of the new wave of mechanics and sound and tone. It’s a single-neck, because I figured out how to get all the tunings in one complex tuning. It’s a mixture of my own thing, sort of an E9 with C6 with E7. It’s really all over the place, because you have the pedals and these different things that help you get the different chords, which lead to different progressions and different scales. If you tune it like this, you can play country, you can play jazz, you can play rock ’n’ roll—you can play everything.

What about amps?

I use a Fuchs 212 cabinet with a special head that they made me. Then I use this Fender Vibrosonic, because I need to get the low end and the mid-rangy stuff, so that’s what really works.


There’s this company called JAM. They make the best analog pedals, whether it’s a phaser, chorus, flanger or overdrive. I have about six of their pedals that I rotate in and out, depending on the situation.

Your church influences really show on the breakdown in “Get Ready.”

It’s funny, that piece of music actually came from an old thing we used to play in church. One of my uncles showed me a videotape from about 1999 and said, “Look at this jam. Man, you had the whole church dancing!” So I’ve been trying to see how I could make that all happen in this crossover with rock ’n’ roll and blues.

How did “Welcome Home” come about? Is Frankie Johnson a real person?

Everybody knows somebody with the name Frankie or a last name of Johnson that served in the military. Here in New Jersey I live in back of a big armory, so I spend a lot of time talking to the troops. It’s really been an eye- and ear-opening experience, because they’ll say things like, ‘You remember so-and-so? He never made it back. He out was here talking to us six months ago. So he’s gone.’ I just want to pay our respects to them. You can’t do that enough.

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